Media by Kelsen Hazelwood and Benjamin Cooley
Written by David Schroeder (@DavidKicksRocks)
“Return of Aetheria: Rise of Nether” is the third and final installment in the Return of Aetheria (ROA) video game series being developed by students at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). With an appearance at Comic Con this past spring and a booth planned for this summer’s PopCon, “Return of Aetheria” is poised to get more exposure than ever before.
“Return of Aetheria” is a game that exists in two parts. The first is as an alternate reality (AR) game. Alternate Reality games are games played in the real world, our world, but with the players acting as if they are in the game’s world. AR games are being developed with greater frequency due to the advent of smart phones and portable video game systems all coming with cameras built in.
If you were at Comic Con in 2014, you might have heard people competing in the “Dragon Shout” challenge. Dragon shouts are an element of the video game “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” which has become a staple of video game pop culture. To complete this challenge, players were tasked with shouting down the convention halls in the dragon language Dovahzul, the louder the better.
The “Return of Aetheria” team doesn’t use AR quests solely to entice people to be silly, they also use their quests to help market themselves and sponsors.
“We send our players to [a sponsor’s] booth to either get something from them or to look at the sponsor’s art or play their game,” says Lacey Smothers, the Media and Sponsorship Representative for “Return of Aetheria.” By leveraging quests into a marketing strategy, ROA not only gets more exposure, but they’re actively networking to build relationships between themselves and other convention goers.
Video games have traditionally been played from the couch. The world the player exists in when they play a video game is clearly separate from our own and is enclosed in the four sides of a player’s television. This separation of worlds means that the rewards for beating a challenge or defeating a boss in a video game never leave their televised habitat either.
In “Return of Aetheria,” this isn’t the case. ROA rewards players with rewards like PlayStation 3 games or Steam codes. “Everyone loves to win prizes and it’s an easy way to keep players coming back,” says lead game designer Adrian Ellis. “Having a way to randomly give away prizes was important to us as well…. That would gravitate the game towards people like us, where we know how to game and how to take advantage of the system.”
To help ensure that the more hardcore and veteran video game players weren’t winning all of the prizes, the ROA team created a “loot chart.” Using the classic role-playing game mechanic of dice rolls, once players get to the loot chart, they roll dice and receive the prize that corresponds to what they rolled. Rolling a six might net you a PS3 game while rolling a four nets you some candy.
Virtual Reality (VR) is viewed within the video game industry as the future of video games. In March of 2014, Sony unveiled it’s VR prototype, code-named Morpheus, to the public. Three months later, Facebook bought the popular VR company Oculus VR for $2 billion, and that’s before Oculus has ever released a consumer product.
“Return of Aetheria” is using virtual reality to present their world to players in a more captivating way. The VR is not being used for gameplay but rather to enhance the story. In October, while ROA was still in pre-production, Sam “Sai” Timmermann attended the Grace Hopper’s Celebration of Women in Computing and was inspired by a “Game of Thrones” booth that used virtual reality.
“They had this booth for HBO’s “Game of Thrones” where you would put on this headset and stand on a vibrating floor and you’d go up The Wall from the show. I was really inspired and wanted to do something like that with what we have here,” Timmermann says.
After seeing the “Game of Thrones” booth, Timmermann viewed VR as a way to help immerse players in the world of Aetheria. To do this, the 3D art team crafted a 3D model of the world the game is played in. When players put on the VR headset, they are transported into Aetheria for a flyby of the game’s world.
“With the VR, we tried to create sort of the backstory of the world that the players are going to be playing in,” says Timmermann, “so that they could experience some really cool technology, feel really immersed in the world, and learn about what they missed if they didn’t play with us last year.
“Return of Aetheria” offers two experiences that are more in line with traditional video games, but they both contain a unique feature that sets them apart—their input methods.
“Red Rush” is one of the mini-games in Return of Aetheria. Red Rush pits four players against each other in a red light/green light style of game. Each player in “Red Rush” is given a corner of the screen. In the player’s corner is an orb with a counter above it. When the orb is green, players tap a touch pad as many times as they can. Each tap of the pad adds a point to the player’s score. Touching the pad when it is red takes a point away. Whoever has the most points when the timer stops is the winner.
The color of the player’s orb is tied directly to another set of orbs in the center of the screen. These four orbs also change color from red to green. Each orb is assigned to a player causing player to look to the middle of the screen for cues for when to tap the touch pad. This design leads to a furious amount of table drumming with players using different tapping techniques to try to amass the highest score. It’s very simple and intuitive thanks to the touch pads.
“Return of Aetheria” also features the game “Shield Defense.” “Shield Defense” is a four-player game that draws its inspiration from Pong. In “Shield Defense,” each player is again given a corner of the screen, but this time they’re tasked with defending it from an onslaught of fireballs.
When “Shield Defense” begins, each player has a stock of supplies that they have to defend by moving their shield in front of the supplies to deflect fireballs away. If a player fails to defend their supplies and they are hit with enough fireballs, the supplies will be destroyed and the player is eliminated from the game. Since the players share a screen, it is possible to deflect fireballs away from hitting your supplies and cause them to hit your opponents’ supplies.
“Shield Defense” stands out by giving users physical levers that they slide back and forth to move their shield. This method of input feels incredibly natural and makes the games very approachable for gamers and non-gamers alike. The physical feedback of the slider is something a traditional controller or mouse and keyboard setup could never provide. Using the slider, feeling its weight and resistance, gives “Return of Aetheria” a very classic arcade feel.
Into the void
“Return of Aetheria: Return to Nether” is a swan song for many members of the ROA team. Next year, the group will look very different. They will lose members to graduation or fatigue and will gain new members from the incoming freshman class. While they are not certain what they’ll be building next year, Media Arts and Science Professor Mat Powers is excited about their prospects.
"We’ve done the convention route. We’ve done PopCon, Comic Con, Gen Con, and more of the entertainment aspect of [game design],” says Professor Powers. “We’re looking at Chicago Public Library…. What we’re kind of thinking right now, the idea is that we could perhaps create some kind of system that would allow students that do not have any gaming background…. They could all come together and make a game.”